Topeka — A bill that opponents and supporters agreed would weaken the ability of public employee unions to participate in politics won preliminary approval on Wednesday.
Backed by the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce, House Bill 2023 would prohibit the Kansas National Education Association and state and local government unions from deducting voluntary paycheck donations from members that are used for political advocacy.
The measure advanced on a 66-54 nonrecord vote. A final vote is expected Thursday.
House Democratic Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, who opposed the bill, said there may be a chance to defeat the legislation when it comes up for a final vote. Sixty-three votes are needed in the 125-member House to approve a bill.
"I think it will be very close," Davis said.
State Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, said the bill was needed to help the "silent majority" of public workers who don't want to join the union but felt they must to avoid pressure. He said government employees have limited income and the bill would give them the opportunity to keep more of their paycheck. "Things are tight out there," he said.
But several opponents said no teacher or government worker has come forward to say they were intimidated into signing the deduction for a small portion of their salary going toward a political action committee.
"No one is coerced to join the union," said state Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, and a 38-year member of the NEA. Trimmer said when he was a teacher, $1.67 each month of his salary would go toward the NEA political action committee.
State Rep. Brandon Whipple, D-Wichita, said his district is the most unionized in the state and no one there has told him of being "forced or tricked or bullied" into joining the union.
But other bill supporters said the government shouldn't be involved in making deductions from the checks of public employees for the purpose of political activity. Trimmer said the cost of administering the deduction was minimal.
Kleeb maintained that public employees could continue to make personal donations to candidates if they wanted. He noted that in other states that have passed similar laws, membership in the teachers union fell off significantly.
State Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita, said if the bill becomes law it will limit constitutional rights of labor organizations.
He told the freshmen legislators, "Your first vote on the first bill of public policy of the 2013 session will be to limit the rights of free speech."
At least two more bills opposed by unions are in the pipeline for consideration. Similar measures had been stopped in recent years in the Senate but the Kansas Chamber and other conservative groups helped flip the Senate into conservative control this session.
Prior to debating the bill, several Republican legislators who supported it said that they heard of teachers being pressured to join the KNEA.
"We've received a lot of stories about that," Kleeb told the House GOP caucus early Wednesday.
State Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, said some teachers join the NEA to avoid being ostracized or intimidated.
But state Rep. Amanda Grosserode, R-Lenexa, said when she taught fifth-grade she didn't join the NEA and felt no pressure. "I have never felt that," Grosserode said.